Ode to Motherhood
By Rachel Galvez
I was born Nguyen thi Kim Hong in Da Nang, Vietnam, sometime in January 1973. My biological parents are listed as “unknown” on my Certificate of Foreign Birth.
That spring, after years of trying to adopt a child from Vietnam, my mom, who was living in Connecticut at the time (and still does), received a photo of a Vietnamese orphan, whom she somehow knew in her heart was meant to be her daughter, and whom she immediately re-named “Rachel,” which is much easier for Westerners to pronounce.
In the months that ensued, the situation in South Vietnam, especially Da Nang (the U.S.’s northernmost military base), became increasingly more dangerous. As an infant, I was transported through a war zone by an American volunteer named Michelle Wentzel to the relative safety of To Am Nursery in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, where I was cared for among hundreds of other orphans by nuns, nurses, doctors, and volunteers.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, my parents worked tirelessly writing letters, wiring money, pleading with government officials, both American and Vietnamese, to push forward my adoption. As they remember, it was seemingly impossible to get their baby out of Vietnam. Then, out of the blue, on January 1, 1974, they received a call saying that everything was in order and that I was due to leave Saigon on Air France the next day for Paris.
When I arrived at JFK International Airport a few days later, I was severely underweight, had a substitute birth certificate, the clothes on my body, a set of toy keys (which I still have), and a mild case of pneumonia.
From that point on my childhood and life probably do not differ much from many of yours. I grew up in a town similar to Rye, went to college and business school, lived in Manhattan and London, got married, and had children. Underlying all of this, I have always felt a profound sense of gratitude for having been adopted into a family and country that afforded me so many options.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when, out of curiosity, I decided to take a DNA test through Ancestry. The results came back as no surprise, as it was assumed that my biological father was an American soldier and my biological mother was Vietnamese — I am approximately 50% Southeast Asian and 50% European. Last summer, my biological niece Olivia also took the test. What’s happened since is beyond anything I could have imagined.
Ancestry linked me to a family I never knew I had. I was the fourth of five children of Nguyen thi Sen. My biological sisters and brother grew up poverty-stricken in war-torn Vietnam with no formal education and, at times, no home. Last fall I met my biological sister (a kind, gentle and generous person) and her family, who immigrated to New Jersey in the 1990s. Despite our different upbringings, it was surprisingly comfortable, and we agreed to meet again before Christmas. Through all of this, and encouraged by my husband, we booked a family vacation to Vietnam to meet my birth mother.
On February 15, a little more than 45 years after I’d arrived in New York, I flew to Saigon with my husband and children. I won’t deny that my heart was exploding with emotion as we landed, but I held it together, mostly because I was slightly concerned that the visitor visas I’d purchased online might not work. Happily, everything went smoothly.
Our days in Saigon were pure bliss. We soaked up the French Colonial architecture and admired the explosion of flowers and happiness. We also visited To Am (which in Vietnamese means “warm nest”) Nursery, the orphanage I lived in for more than eight months. Today, it’s a luxurious upscale French spa with the friendliest staff. From there we flew to Da Nang, where I was born and where we enjoyed the world’s best seafood.
Finally, we visited Nha Trang, one of the most beautiful places imaginable, to meet my birth mother, who’d last seen me when I was 5 months old. She told me she’d thought of me every day since. I was overwhelmed by her warmth and kindness. Our reunion was more than I could have ever hoped for and something I struggle to express in words. I discovered that I was voluntarily given up for adoption by my family, whom I assume understood war and poverty, and intuitively knew I’d have a better life in America.
It takes a special kind of mother to give a 5-month-old baby up for adoption, because you know that baby deserves a better life than what you can provide (I couldn’t do it). And it takes a special kind of mother to adopt a baby/child and raise it as your own. Adopting a child is so much more challenging — emotionally and financially — than having children the old-fashioned way (again, I’m not sure I could do it). I am blessed to have both kinds of moms.
The author and her adoptive mother in 1974
The author with her birth mother in Vietnam earlier this year